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Talking Crosstalk with Dashan

Talking Crosstalk with Dashan

An Interview with China’s Most Famous Foreigner



He’s often considered the most famous foreigner in China, an image that started establishing itself about 25 years ago. In December 1988, Canadian-born Mark Rowswell, also known as Dashan (澶у北), skyrocketed to fame after his first performance on CCTV (Chinese Central Television), for which he did a comic skit in Mandarin. His exceptional language skills, and the support and training of comedian Jiang Kun (濮滄槅), allowed him to develop a career in the highly popular Chinese performance discipline known as crosstalk (xiangsheng鐩稿0), whilst also being involved in other aspects of the Chinese entertainment industry.


Rowswell is currently based in Toronto, but he commutes to China on a regular basis for different gigs and appearances, although his crosstalk activities have taken a backseat. Tianjin Plus talked to him about his exceptional career path and the art form that helped make him famous.


When he was 23 and studying Chinese language at Beijing University in 1988, Rowswell made his first TV appearances – his stage name Dashan was his first performance alter ego, and afterwards it stuck with him – and it got him intrigued by crosstalk. “The performances I saw were funny and topical, talking about issues of the day and really striking a chord with the audience,” he says. “I thought it would be a great way to learn more about modern Chinese society, about what ordinary people were talking about and what they thought was funny. And of course I knew it would be a great way to polish my Chinese.”

In asking how he would describe crosstalk to someone non-Chinese, he says, “It’s just comic dialogue. The basic format is easy to understand and pretty universal across cultures. The deeper you go, the more culturally specific it becomes. There tends to be more emphasis on tradition than in Western comedy, for example, and perhaps greater use of linguistic tricks than is common in English comedy. Crosstalk routines tend to be strictly structured rather than loose and improvised.”


In Western stand-up comedy, it is usual to jump from topic to topic and explore a range of themes in a singular performance. Crosstalk focuses mostly on one specific subject. “It’s much more literary that way, with an introduction, development and conclusion. It can be about anything. As with most comedic dialogue, there is usually a conflict between the two characters that gets established early in the conversation and then gets developed.”


Since crosstalk requires an excellent knowledge of Mandarin and insight in Chinese culture and society today, the art form seems an inconceivable challenge for most foreigners. The discipline has its own hierarchy, into which a performer has to be accepted to become a respected artist. Rowswell was taken in as a member in 1989, being the first foreigner to ever receive that honour. “I think the main challenge [as a foreigner] is to move beyond the novelty factor. You can still get a laugh for doing Chinese tongue twisters or speaking slang, but that’s not enough. Because crosstalk is often thought of as an art form, the bar has been raised so that simply making the audience laugh is not sufficient. Audiences have a certain level of expectation with crosstalk; it has to be more than just funny jokes or a novelty act. Unfortunately, what is ‘proper crosstalk’ is the subject of some debate. Frankly, there are a lot of crosstalk purists that are simply anal and are best ignored. In the end, it’s entertainment first and art second.”


“As a foreigner it’s important to go through the history and understand how crosstalk developed. Learn some of the traditional sketches, gain an intrinsic knowledge of how and why they work, and get up on stage and perform. Knowledge is easy to obtain just by reading, listening, and asking questions, but a deeper understanding of crosstalk can only really be earned through practice on stage.”


The majority of crosstalk performances are made up of two-person dialogues, while monologues and multi-person dialogues are fairly rare. Despite monologues being even more challenging due to the more limited material, Rowswell has tried his hand at it on several occasions. “I gradually came to enjoy doing monologues because it allowed me to break out of the ‘Chinese teacher & foreign student’ format. Whenever you have a native Chinese speaker and a Westerner performing crosstalk together, the teacher-student dynamic is a natural result. It’s difficult to break out of that and just be perceived as two individuals engaged in dialogue.”


In recent years, Rowswell’s crosstalk performances have become sparse, as the art form went through a decline in popularity and then somewhat resurged with a new generation of artists and crosstalk clubs. He now focuses on a variety of other activities in China’s media industry, making appearances in talk shows, reality shows, and advertisements. “I never intended to be a professional crosstalk performer and I never considered it to be a profession even when I was actively involved. After 7 or 8 years, by the late 1990s, I felt I was reaching a limit, or that the path I had been following was reaching a natural conclusion. There were other things to do that I found more interesting and that fit in my general goal of being a so-called ‘cultural ambassador’ between China and the West.”

“In the late 1990s crosstalk hit a low point in its history. It wasn’t as funny anymore and there were too many outside constraints on the art form in terms of content, time, and the venues available. The crosstalk clubs of today didn’t exist back then, and the television version had become stale and predictable. Since that point there has been something of a revival, but also a deeply traditionalist movement that has taken crosstalk back in time.”


Rowswell is keen to write more in-depth about “the story of crosstalk” and the development of comedy in modern China. He considers it an opportunity to create insight and understanding into societal change. “Maybe 2014 will be the year I follow through on this idea. A book may be calling me…”.

By Sanne Jehoul

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